Steve McLendon put his finger to his lips and tried to suppress a smile.
“Shhh, don’t talk about me too much,” the Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle said. “I don’t want anybody talking about me too much.”
Considering the way McLendon is playing in place of injured starter Casey Hampton, that’s going to be difficult.
While Hampton continues his methodical comeback from offseason knee surgery – a return that hit a bit of a snag when the five-time Pro Bowler underwent a procedure recently to “fix” his left elbow – McLendon is blossoming into the heir apparent as the anchor of Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense.
Working extensively with the first team while Hampton heals, McLendon has provided a spark in the middle. He has five tackles and a sack in two games for Pittsburgh (No. 7 in the AP Pro32) and should have gotten credit for a half-sack of Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck in a 26-24 victory last Sunday.
“It doesn’t matter,” McLendon said. “It’s just preseason.”
Maybe, but it’s also a glimpse into the future.
Though Hampton – who turns 35 on Labor Day – insists he’ll be ready for the season opener in Denver, he’s only played in all 16 games once since 2005. McLendon and rookie Alameda Ta’amu will be called on to spell Hampton to help keep the 12-year veteran fresh.
It’s a role McLendon, who made the team as an undrafted free agent two years ago, is happy to accept. As solid as his preseason has been, McLendon has no illusions about what will happen when Hampton pulls over his No. 98 jersey and tells the Steelers he’s ready to go.
“I’m still going to prepare like the starter, still practice like the starter, still play like the starter,” McLendon said. “I’m just going to be behind Casey. I understand that.”
Besides, McLendon knows he and Hampton make for one of the more unique 1-2 punches in the league. Hampton rarely met a meal he wanted to pass up or a training camp he wanted to participate in. He’s the prototypical nose tackle, his ample belly designed to occupy as much space – and as many offensive linemen – as possible.
McLendon, by comparison, appears downright skinny. Appears, anyway. Listed at 285 pounds, McLendon says he’s more in the range of 325 but knows he doesn’t look like it. His stomach is nearly invisible when he’s in full pads. When he tells people what position he plays, they’re invariably surprised.
Don’t let the flat stomach fool you, though. McLendon is “an ox,” according to center Maurkice Pouncey.
“He can generate a pass rush at nose guard, that’s hard for nose guards,” Pouncey said. “He’s got speed. And for him to be that size and not fat like all the other ones, he can move in there and still have the same kind of strength they do.”
That was on full display against the Colts. Late in the first quarter McLendon twisted his way into the backfield and roared in the direction of Luck, who ducked down and out of the way as LaMarr Woodley dragged the quarterback to the ground and McLendon piled on.
It’s a move Hampton has seen countless times in practice over the last three summers as McLendon evolved from raw project into potential NFL starter.
“He’s just scratching the surface of how good he can be,” Hampton said.
“When he figures it out and realizes how good he is, the sky is the limit for him. I definitely think he can be a great player in this league.”
McLendon, however, is just fine being a contributor on one of the league’s top defenses. He knows he wouldn’t have made the team without Hampton’s guidance. Now McLendon is trying to do the same thing with Ta’amu. Sure the two could one day be fighting for the right to replace Hampton. Now, however, they’re just a couple of young guys trying not to screw up.
“I don’t want to miss out on a blessing by trying to be selfish,” McLendon said. “It’s selfish for me to hold out knowledge on him. Let’s face it, we’re going to need him. Why not bring the young man along?”
It’s an act of kindness that surprised Ta’amu, who expected more of the “every man for himself” ethos he experienced while playing college ball at Washington. Instead, the guy who will one day be Ta’amu’s biggest competition has become his biggest supporter.
“Steve, he’ll get on me,” Ta’amu said. “I’ll be like, ‘Why are you helping me, you know I’m trying to take your spot right?’ But that’s just the mentality they have at camp. The way he helps me, it’s a nice little brotherhood we have here.”
One that leaves little doubt about who’s in charge in the meeting room.
That role belongs to Hampton as long as he sticks around. He was activated from the physically unable to perform list last week and is confident he’ll be ready when it matters.
“I’m going to be ready when it’s time to go,” Hampton said. “That’s my plan.”
Steve McLendon put his finger to his lips and tried to suppress a smile.
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